I Want Your Job: John Kiru, Executive Director of TABIA
Meet the man who keeps Toronto's BIAs from going MIA.
Even if you can’t tell a BIA from a YMCA, you’ve seen their work. Short for Business Improvement Area, BIAs are responsible for things like street festivals, custom-made bike racks, painted tree planters, and even some of the signage hanging from local streetlights. BIAs are made up of business and property owners who strive to improve their local micro-economy. As John Kiru, the executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA), explains, “Primarily, they are mandated to serve two functions: to beautify and to promote and market their areas. Advocacy, safety, and affinity are also roles they play.”
Business improvement areas are a Toronto invention, starting with Bloor West Village in 1970. TABIA was created in 1980, when it became clear that the handful of BIAs that had sprung up across Toronto were facing similar issues. TABIA now provides BIAs with support and tools they can use to help their members, and often lobbies on their behalf. The association represents over 35,000 business and property owners.
In a role that he says is “full time and then some,” Kiru works with BIAs across the city, with the provincial and municipal governments, and other stakeholders. Kiru, 57, was previously the head of the Weston BIA, and holds a planning degree. He’s been at TABIA for over 15 years.
Our interview with Kiru—about meetings, taxes, and moving Main Street into the future—is below.
Torontoist: Your position seems to answer to a lot of different interests: the BIAs themselves, the provincial and municipal governments, City Hall. How do you balance all these different mandates and relationships?
John Kiru: This position answers to the board of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) whose mandate it is to support, work, and look after the best interests of Toronto’s BIAs and their members. We deal on an advocacy level with all three levels of government as each has a direct impact on Toronto’s business community, and thus on our member BIAs. Fundamentally, it comes down to what’s good for business is good for TABIA.
What’s the benefit of having an organization like TABIA working with all the different BIAs in the city? How do you split your time with them, or offer guidance and support when they need it?
Similar to the fundamental principle of the BIA, where numbers have a greater and more effective voice and, collectively, their pooled resources are able to achieve more, TABIA fundamentally provides the same opportunity on a greater scale. Regionally, if you will.
With 81 BIAs in place at the moment, one tries to visit at least once a year, whether it’s at the BIA’s AGM or during one of their board meetings. We also facilitate a monthly inter-departmental meeting with the City of Toronto: BIAs are brought up to speed on new initiatives or bylaws that may have an effect on how they do business, or they discuss, review, and solve issues that they face before they become problems and thus allow other members to learn from the experience. Guidance and support are always available on an as-needed basis, where BIA staff or board members reach out to us with issues such as board governance, preferred suppliers, legislative compliance, and any other matters that they encounter in navigating the BIA world.
What are some of the different projects within the BIAs that you’re excited about right now? And what are some of the past successes you’ve had?
Currently, the “Digital Mainstreet” initiative with the city and local start-ups in the digital field has brought an element of new engagement with all the BIAs, regardless of their size or makeup. The progress of digital in retail is absolutely astounding, and moving traditional Main Street business into the 21st century is really exciting. While at this stage we are building out the plan and its implementation, it’s great to see the engagement of businesses who want to move forward, and the providers and developers who have a lot to offer.
You’ve been in this role for many years. How has the focus and role of TABIA changed over the last decade and a half?
TABIA is no longer simply reacting to issues. Rather, we have become a much more proactive organization, in some cases taking on projects before they have even been identified by whatever authority holds the mandate. In many cases, we now drive the agenda on BIA and local business issues.
Can you tell me about a time where you felt like your work with TABIA was really paying off? An example of a project well executed, or a moment when you knew your work had an impact on the community?
I believe that one of our major successes on behalf of business in Toronto—and not only BIA-based businesses, but business, period—is the negotiated shrinking of the gap between residential and commercial business tax rates. It took a lot to convince the council of that time that how Main Street goes, so goes the rest of the neighbourhood. A vibrant, safe, and prosperous Main Street means that the quality of life of residents, and the value of their single largest investment, increases significantly. They got it, and we are now experiencing some of the benefits of that decision.
What’s the best part of your job?
Building relationships. It’s absolutely incredible how many people, both in the private sector and government, have an effect on business in the city of Toronto. I think I have met them all, and I’m better for it. If I have not met them yet, I’m sure that I will in the near future.